Such a striking cover for this debut, and entirely fitting given it’s set in the English countryside although animal lovers may get a bit more than they bargained for in this novel about a young Slovakian woman who leaves London to work as an au pair for a couple at Fairmont Hall, the house which is both their home and a financial millstone around their necks. Laura Kaye explores what it is to be an outsider in more ways than one in this funny yet perceptive coming-of-age story.
When Mirka spots her future home from the taxi window, nestled in the English countryside, she thinks it’s perfect but her arrival is heralded by the sound of bickering, a favourite pastime for Richard and Sophie. Soon it becomes clear that there are no children for Mirka to look after. She’s expected to help around the various businesses that keep Fairmont Hall afloat: B & B, weddings, pheasant shoots and – Richard’s latest wheeze – taxidermy for which Mirka turns out to have a surprising talent. Despite their turbulent relationship, Richard and Sophie warmly welcome Mirka into their home – Richard joshing with her and Sophie teaching her how to do the daily crossword. Naturally neat and tidy, she manages to instil some order into this grubbily chaotic household – even the taxidermy becomes a pleasure as she devises tableaux, from a chicks’ hen party to a mouse rave, quickly snapped up by Richard’s hipster client. All seems to be set fair for Mirka, who has fled a violent home, but soon she finds herself falling in love and an affair begins for which one party may have higher hopes than the other.
Kaye tells her story through Mirka’s engaging voice, showing us English country life from an outsider’s point of view. There are some nice little digs about xenophobic attitudes, from Celia’s gullible swallowing of Romanian dognapper rumours to a tendency to lump all foreigners together, muddling Slovakian with Slovenian. Kaye depicts a certain sort of upper-middle-class Englishman painfully accurately in William who is all too recognisable but there’s also affection in her portrayal of English eccentricity and village life. It’s very funny at times although the squeamish may want to skip the more detailed taxidermy descriptions. All this is framed by an involving and appealing story peopled by well-observed characters. A thoroughly enjoyable novel, undemanding but well turned out enough to make me eager for more from Kaye.